Violence against Women and COVID-19: Can We Learn from the Pandemic?

Nora Löhr • 30 Juli 2020
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Global lockdowns have exacerbated violence against women yet teach us an important lesson on how to protect women in times of crises. Natalie R. Gill dives into the world of tech and frontier technologies to highlight the importance of women’s right to safe mobility.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought existing inequalities and social injustices worldwide to the forefront. Cities have borne the brunt of the virus, and disparities in urban health, housing, and employment have been exacerbated significantly. It is however gender inequalities, and particularly violence against women and girls, that have become more obvious than ever before.

While it is always difficult to gauge the true extent of domestic violence due to low disclosure rates, calls to the police have surged worldwide. In Hubei province, home to Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, calls to police increased from 47 to 162 per week compared to the same period last year. In Chicago, the first week of March saw 383 calls due to domestic violence. That number rose to 548 per week by the end of April. The United Nations reports that in Malaysia, domestic violence has increased by 40 per cent, 50 per cent in China and Somalia, 79 per cent in Colombia, and a shocking 400 per cent in Tunisia.

Freedom of ‘Safe’ Movement: Not for All

The coincidence of the current lockdown with women’s increased calls for help underlines a critical tenet of their safety: a woman’s vulnerability to violence is intimately related to her ability to move freely. Restrictions on movement impede a woman’s ability to escape a violent partner, an unstable home, or other dangerous situations. Women who live in informal settlements and underinvested neighbourhoods are especially at risk during external crises such as the pandemic. Physical distance to basic services and poor infrastructure, including poor lighting or distance to public transportation, are key characteristics of slums and poorer neighbourhoods. They are also critical factors that impede a woman’s ability to access, for instance, police stations and safe houses, particularly if she is travelling with children.

As restrictions are lifted, a woman’s vulnerability to violence and harassment will still be related to her ability to travel safely, and without fear, to the places, she needs to be: home, stores, the city centre, or childcare facilities. The emotional and psychological effects of fear of violence or harassment should not be underestimated either.

The so-called “pink tax”, coined by New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, asserts that women in New York City are willing to spend an average of 25 to 50 US Dollars more per month on transportation than men. This is because they prefer to take private transport such as taxis or ridesharing to avoid harassment on public transport. Women traveling as caregivers are even willing to spend more than 100 US Dollars. Data also shows that young women in Delhi are even willing to attend less prestigious colleges and universities, depending on how safe they feel about commuting between home and school.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that women in cities around the world may be missing out on critical economic and educational opportunities because the threat of violence and harassment, quite literally, limits their ability to seek places of opportunity.

Technology for Safer Spaces

There is, however, a growing recognition that women’s safety must be a defining aim of equitable urban development worldwide. The “smart city” movement and frontier digital technologies could offer new and innovative ways to improve women’s ability to move around cities safely. The movement seeks to harness data and technology to make cities more efficient, integrated, and sustainable. Yet, too often, it focuses on economic considerations rather than advancing social justice and equality, particularly regarding underserved populations. Cities that wish to become inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, must ask themselves: how can we use technology to improve women’s ability to navigate the city, thus opening them up to educational and economic opportunities?

This question is part of a smart city just city framework advanced by IHC Global , bringing together smart city movement with traditional goals of the “just city” movement that has sought to advance solutions to social injustice. A smart just city can indeed effectively mainstream gender in urban policy. Fortunately, there are already cities around the world that are operating within this framework.

Local Best Practices in Tech and Safety

In Delhi, in 2013, the SafetiPin app was created to support women’s safety, following the highly publicized attack and murder of a young, female university student on a bus. The crowd-sourced app allows women users to rate city streets and neighbourhoods on their perception of various safety criteria, such as lighting, density of people, and gender diversity in a given area. So far, SafetiPin has conducted 60,000 safety audits in Delhi. This has led to policy changes and investment, as the Delhi Public Works Department and the New Delhi Commission have used app data to improve lighting, bus stop sites, and to determine where more police patrolling is needed. SafetiPin now collects data on 28 cities in ten different countries.

In Lahore, a crowd-funded mapping initiative allowed women to map sites where they experienced violence or harassment. Data gathered from the initiative helped to assess and modify Lahore’s current efforts to promote women’s safety in public spaces. The city recently added smart ticketing to its Bus Rapid Transit System to lessen the time women spent in public spaces, and to minimize their interactions with conductors and transport employees.

Yet, this mapping initiative also revealed that women continued to feel unsafe. It turned out that ticketing was not the issue, but rather that Lahore lacked “interoperability between transport options.” In other words, if a woman needs to take both a bus and a train, it is the travelling route between the bus and train stop that holds the threat of danger. This is because the distance between sites is often very far, poorly lit, or because pickup and drop-off stations are even unmarked.

In Mexico City, the government collaborated with the mobile application Vive Segura to help women directly report incidents of harassment and violence on public transportation. Since then, the government has committed to the app findings, by creating three support centres in metro and metro bus systems, and establishing 125 women-only buses.

Going Forward

These promising efforts underline the importance of advancing women’s safety and mobility in the urban space. In this regard, UN-Habitat has recently introduced its new flagship program “Frontier Technologies and Innovation of Inclusive, Sustainable, and Resilient Cities”, which will help guide urban planners and policymakers in creating smart just cities.

COVID-19 has renewed interest in addressing all aspects of urban inequity and has shed light on the proliferation of domestic violence. Now is the time to remember that, to improve women’s standing in society, we need to facilitate safe mobility and make women’s freedom of safe movement a reality. It is also the time to take advantage of a growing set of smart city tools to mainstream gender in city policy, and thus enhance urban resilience and shared prosperity for all.